Photo credit: Dawn M. Joseph, “looking out” (copyright 2015)
by Duriel E. Harris
previously published on poetry.org
I. False starts
Although it felt like a confession as I began to type this, I knew that it was not. I was safe in my own apartment standing at the edge of my bed listening to the rhythmic whir of the twin motors of the window fan.
Thought punctures the canopy—
Poetry is a haunting—
Anxiety creates excess—
How can one impact others’ sentience without being present and therefore coming into the line of sight?
I looked behind the document window and saw a man lying prone in a room with netted windows. I saw his feet with my eyes but imagined they were his head. The image was still but I thought I saw his head lift up as if to catch my attention. In that, his lower leg became a long neck.
To tell, to slither
Let it go to shit
Ursula LeGuin says the present tense flattens the affect of the speaker because it denies the accessible past that writer and reader share.
Each featured blog post emerges from activity aimed toward a sustainable creative-critical practice of exchange prompted by innovative necessity.
As such posts may emerge from or yield: play, critical resistance, laughter, desire, social activism, aphorisms, art stuff, etc.
I sent a version of the following email message to a smattering of poets and artists with folks I knew who’d not yet blogged for Harriet as my primary pool.
At this juncture I’m writing to extend an invitation.
I’m writing for The Poetry Foundation blog for August and I’m incorporating other poets and artists in my efforts as an “Experiment in Joy”–responding to the call for collective action put forward by Call & Response–a dynamic of Black women and performance–featured in volume 41 of Obsidian. Such experiments have only a few rules:
1. Tell the truth
2. Make something new
3. Invite someone in
For the blog post you might conduct your own experiment in joy and reflect upon it or you might like to write something else.
Would you be interested?
Here’s a link to the blog post a classmate wrote about it after I shared the process at my college reunion. The more I meditate on her reflection and my interactions in this regard the more I am awed by this simple directive’s tremendous power.
I’m thinking about 250 words or less for a “joyful shout” or 500 words for a more substantive engagement.
This invitation was an extension of a larger expression of gratitude, an acknowledgment of shared connection through practices of generosity and exchange. Each time I had repeated the process, my experience of my life was enriched—even in the midst of the madness of our contemporary moment. I wanted that for others, too.
Who wouldn’t want to experience more joy?
In addition to inviting other artists to participate in the blog as a discreet experiment in joy, I envisioned the entire Harris Harriet blog endeavor aka The Harri Blogject as an Experiment in Joy. So, regardless of the structure of each post, in composing them I would move through the Call & Response process: Tell the truth; Make something new; Invite someone in; Document; Repeat.
Committed to truly inhabiting the joy I find implicit in critical-creative practice and the poetic event I gave myself one rule—okay I gave myself a few rules but this one was really important—if thinking about it and/or doing it (the truth and activity of making at the core of any chosen experiment) didn’t give me that sustained surge of energy I recognize as inspiration (that flowering kick of adrenalin) I was to scrap it and move on.
As such, the meditating monk muse and musicking compassion-filled innovative play word-sound-authentic-power Black feminist Harri Blogject began.
Truth be told: I had (and still have) too much shit, especially after having downsized my square footage yet again; so, I had to clear some space.
V. Ode to Clutter
Not “Hoarders” level clutter but still a waste-not-want-not-depression-era-inheritance-complicated-by-trauma variety clutter. Threadbare t-shirts and socks. Assorted bags. Umpteen audio and power cables. Twist ties. Ziploc bags of old pens and markers, staples, binder clips, and half used post-it pads. Books and folders. And especially clutter on and around my desk and coffee table. Excess paper—old syllabi, notes on essays and grant proposals, junk mail (cometh nearly everyday), bills, journal manuscript second pages, website design notes, receipts, Giant To Do Lists, hard copy print-outs of poems, and poetry fodder that has been reviewed, mined, and, re-piled/filed. I vaguely remember poet Michael Harper handing me typed memos of future poem titles (“Write these poems, Harris”) in conference before class at NYU and his booming admonishment to keep every scrap. And with that I began holding on to the half-done poems, too.
I added them to file folders of scribbled notes (penned in my tiny handwriting), yearbooks, correspondence, photos, and small objects compiled to symbolize concrete happenings and actors in what was an otherwise dubious hazy past. The impulse was not so much to preserve names and faces—for I barely recognized myself in photos. (I knew, objectively, which one people would say had been me but there was no emotional connection to that face. The brown girl child, teenager, woman was a curiosity.) No. The impulse was to capture the sense of things, the general quality and shape, the volume and textures of the effects of memory that signaled my particular and individual presence in a specific moment. Evidence that I had been there and more significantly, that I had been a distinguishable identifiable person, a conscious being. I was, by the grace of my mind’s protective strategies, amnesic. I could recall little on command. Having the traces of the past there in a pile or sealed in a file box had been reassuring. Without them, though logic prompted me to believe otherwise, I literally couldn’t be quite sure I had been.
Among the excess coffee table papers I found a blog post I had discovered likely through FB (only the initials FB will appear here for I do not dare write/type its full name, lest its algorithms perk up and start their fiendish calculations). It was one of those lists that tended to circulate among folk who wanted to transform their lives from drudgery to ease, trading in the rat race for white flowing robes, white light, and blue water lapping or flowing. A happiness seekers list. Initially I had copied and pasted the list into a blank document. For the two-word verb phrase “give up,” I had substituted the word “release” then printed and posted it in my home office.
Excavating the list from a stack of papers gathered for filing or other placement in my new home office, I appreciated its range. Ah, yes, “15 barriers” to a more expansive experience of wellbeing. Of course there might be the problem of attaining success in 21st century white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—several of the barriers are overtly valued in our society, while others simply feel like par for the course of our social world. But, since existential luck had already placed me at a social death disadvantage and hatred, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc. have been flourishing in the U.S. like toxigenic mold in a waterlogged basement, why not?
(Apparently, the post has been shared over 1.2 million times and the writer has gone on to publish a whole book based on this list of 15 common happiness devouring tendencies. Cha-ching! Dollar signs and cents sense for her!)
VI. “The HarriPoG”
Focusing on poetry, poets, and po-stuff and buoyed by a recent Oprah Chopra 21 Day Meditation series, I decided to revisit, remix, and rewrite the 15 Things List and call it “The Harried Poets Guide to Courting a Happiness in Your: Head/ Sleeping Bag/ Living Room/ Shower/ Meditation & Writing Nook/ Corner Coffee Shop Table/ Writing Studio/ Villa/ Car/ Business Class Reserved Commuter Train Seat/ Few Moments of Peace Snatched from: the National News Headlines/ Social Media Mecca Madness/ Your Kids/ Your Kids’ School(s)’ Administrators/ Your Hunny/ Your Job/ Your Spouse / Your Spouse’s Hunny/ Your Students/ Your Boss/ Your Nosey Neighbor Michael Penelope Timothy Jill Irving, etc./ a Strangely Clingy Homicidal Stray Cat You Call Thumbelina Kiss-singer/ Your Noisy Radiator/ Obsessive Thoughts of Card Catalog Fires and Giant Tree Frogs/ Your Mother (Because You Still Live in Her House)” or “The HarriPoG” for short.
1. Release your need to be right
I know. What else do you have? You are a poet in the U.S.—or worse: you are a poet outside of the U.S. interested in U.S.-based po-stuff. (Even Dragon Dictate did not recognize the word poet. Instead it transcribed “polling” “holy” “holy” only getting to “poet” on the fourth try. What disrespect.)
Let’s face it: you can’t afford to alienate anyone who gives two shakes. Not even other poets. Who’ll blurb your books? Buy them like candy? Translate them? Teach them in their classes? Hate on you for creating a new, popular fixed form? Hate on you for that ridiculously wicked line break? Hate on you for becoming a best-selling fiction author? Hate on you for becoming a best-selling nonfiction author? Stop your children from teasing you? Compare you to cheese?
2. Release your need for control
What do you mean every single word counts? Diction fiction. And so what if the formatting disappears from your document? Page proofs? —Why bother? Articles are more or less interchangeable, right? A picture really is worth 1000 words—especially if people say so over and over again and the picture is really huge (like way bigger than the trim size). Breath, no breath, whatever. Let the boats float where they may. Perfectionism eats the soul with spam sandwiches.
3. Release blame
No one told you to be a poet.
4. Release your self-defeating self-talk
Verbal language is objectively magical. Because you said so. Sometimes you are right. Having an overactive inner critic is like having an autoimmune disorder or overactive bladder: you’re always sick or always leaking. Who can make poems under those circumstances? Turn on some music and free your ass so your mind will follow, then snatch a knot in it and make it obey. You’re boss.
5. Release living your life to other people’s expectations
You’ve disappointed everyone at least once already: take it to the next level. Ruin your life yourself—and take credit for it. How can you get your imagery and figurative language on if you’re letting other people determine the rhythm and the rhyme? Check the word count only after you’re done.
6. Release complaining
Now that you’re doing it your way you’ll notice even more crap that you don’t like. But being a negative NellieNed is no fun unless there’s vodka in the mix or the liquor or licker of your choice. It’s still no fun but you won’t notice all of that if you’re sloshed enough. If something really gets your hackles up challenge it to a duel with a wet noodle, a metaphor, or an acrostic allegory. If it’s bigger, smarter, meaner, drunker, etc. than you or has a rhyming dictionary and encyclopedia of word origins, eat a spam sandwich and see #4.
7. Release the luxury of criticism
Okay, you’re hung over AND drunk and full of spam but you still have your wits about you. Sure some po-stuff can be found wanting while other po-stuff is deeply lost in it. But criticism is neither critical thinking nor critical engagement. In most places there’s too much light pollution to see the stars, anyway. Stickers to the rescue! Stars, hearts, tree frogs, smiley faces. Everyone wants to be happy!—sticker. We do better when we know better!—sticker. Remember, you need friends. Try on withness—read with the doggerel and slap a sticker on it. You probably liked it when you were a toddler. Live long enough and you’ll get back to liking it.
8. Release labels
Do you really want to know what’s in your spam sandwich?
9. Release your need to impress others
Come on! You’re a poet! You can’t possibly really want to impress anyone. Wear your night guard in broad daylight. And your doggy slippers. Eat your breakfast cereal on the toilet. Read a book with pages. That investment banker/ entertainment lawyer/ pediatric surgeon/ astronaut/ world famous DJ/ retired CEO turned photojournalist you sat behind in High School is blown forward by your courage. There’s no sexier injury than carpal tunnel.
10. Release your limiting beliefs
Your limiting beliefs have been cooped up so long they’re growing nose beards. Even they have a taste for adventure: set them free. Let them run with the bulls, climb Mt. Everest, take a taxi in Lagos. While they’re out, have a party and invite Creativity into your head/ sleeping bag, etc. Social butterfly Creativity is game to meet any challenge. Follow that butterfly’s lead. Poems can be and do anything so why can’t you?
11. Release your resistance to change
Come on! You’re a poet following your bliss! What doors can open if nothing changes?
12. Release the past
Clutter. All clutter blocking the flow. Throw it out.
Still troubled? Trigger a migraine. Migraines have been known to wipe hard drives and reboot the inner OS, if you feel me. (Disclaimer: migraines are painful and have been known to be accompanied by distorted vision and sensitivity to light, sound, smell and other stimuli as well as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, hallucinations, etc. Use sparingly.)
13. Release your fears (and the future)
Fear gives you a message to adapt to your circumstances (Fight? Freeze?) and get to safety (Flee?). Death and suffering are certain. As is oblivion. Nothing to fear! At least two are certain to get you. Ask Ozymandias. Tend to the present. Do your laundry. Write a poem. Shower. Write a poem. Brush your teeth. Write a poem. Strengthen your core. Write. Mind the gap. There’s a poem in it.
14. Release attachment
This is about that burning card catalog. And clingy stray cat. Relax into your awareness of their presence. Count the cards. Follow the smoke. Leave tuna for the cat. Let them come and go as they please. It’s all good. The possible combination of words, phrases, lines is countably infinite.
15. Release your excuses
Writer’s block? Sure! Overworked and stressed? Certainly! Who’re you talking to? See #9 and write or don’t, no one is paying attention. (Well, almost no one. See #1. (What disrespect.)) Anywho, this is all for you. See #4 and have at it.
Note: A more thorough explanation and account of the Call & Response Experiments in Joy can be found in volume 41 nos. 1-2 of the creative/scholarly journal Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora.
Tags: Awilda Rodriguez-Lora, Call & Response, Dawn M. Joseph, Gabrielle Civil, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Mire Regulus, Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora, Rosamond S. King, Wura-Natasha Ogunji
Posted in Featured Blogger on Friday, August 5th, 2016 by Duriel E. Harris.